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March 30, 2017

Psychologist now dedicated to faculty needs

UPMC LifeSolutions is dedicating one of its psychologists to the particular needs of Pitt faculty and the stressors inherent in teaching and conducting research — and some Pitt faculty members say that’s a welcome move.

Faculty Support Services is a free, confidential program available to faculty and members of their household.

Sue Oerkvitz, the longtime LifeSolutions psychologist newly dedicated to Pitt faculty needs, says: “Just having a place to come and talk to someone about what you have in mind, where you don’t have to protect the relationship, as you would with a family member or colleague — someone who is familiar with the stress of working in an academic setting — can be helpful to listen and then brainstorm an alternative.”

Oerkvitz joined LifeSolutions in 1998 after 17 years in other mental health settings. She has a PhD in speech communications with a focus on interpersonal communications, and has conducted research at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, an experience that has helped her understand faculty issues more intimately, she says.

In fact, Oerkvitz has been counseling faculty along with Pitt staff for her 18 years here. She has seen faculty for personal and family issues as well as work-related stress, including concerns over teaching responsibilities, research tasks and the tenure process, among many issues. She has coached faculty on better communications with colleagues and supervisors, and on handling course loads.

Publication deadlines are a frequent topic for her individual meetings with faculty, she says: “I see people about that very often. That’s really a big one.”

Difficulty getting research funding is another common topic. “We brainstorm about how to deal with that and what options there might be to create additional alternatives to secure funding,” she says.

Of course, work-life balance predominates as a faculty stressor, she adds.

“Sometimes it’s things that they can talk with me [about] and implement and come back and talk to me about how it is going, and then we can adjust the plans,” Oerkvitz says. “Also, we can look at additional resources that can be helpful to them,” either on campus or elsewhere in the community.

If a faculty member is struggling with work-life balance, Oerkvitz may even suggest inviting his/her spouse to join a session. “Sometimes having a third party available helps a couple be able to talk to each other,” she says.

“We’re excited about making our services fit more specifically with faculty needs,” she adds.

Tom Koloc, senior account manager at LifeSolutions, has been part of the group meeting for the last several months to institute this move, prompted by the mental health and wellness task force of the University Senate benefits and welfare committee. Koloc says the move is both significant and welcome:

“We’ve always seen the faculty as an important population to target our services for and this has been a great new opportunity,” he says. Oerkvitz “has a wealth of experience working with the University of Pittsburgh and the issues with which faculty and staff present.” He was particularly happy that faculty leadership already has expressed interest in receiving presentations about services for faculty: “We want to help leadership with enhancing their awareness of our program and then taking full advantage of the services we provide.”


Two Pitt faculty members, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the University Times that faculty work has its own unique issues, and that having a mental health counselor dedicated to faculty would be welcome.

The first faculty member, who is involved in research, says balancing work and the rest of life always has been a concern: “For faculty, it’s always kind of not enough,” he says of his duties. “You always need to get more grants, publish more papers… .”

He adds: “Your job security is not necessarily based on your performance as a researcher. The strategy of becoming successful as a faculty member is not really clear.” Accumulating accomplishments in one area of the faculty triad — teaching, research and service — may be seen as too narrow to signal successful job performance, while being somewhat successful in all three facets may be not be viewed in the best light either, he says.

This has caused stress in his life. “Because the expectations are so vague, I think it puts a strain on your personal life as well, because when you get home you’re thinking: What if I can squeeze another half an hour in?”

He has sought assistance from other faculty, which has been “some help, but not a hundred percent. The big challenge is to figure out how much work is enough, when to stop, when to seek out another opportunity.”

Would he see a psychologist who understood faculty issues? “It would be a help, as long as I know that the whole thing was confidential and my seeking help would not be public knowledge.”

He isn’t aware of any fellow faculty members currently seeking help from a counselor, although of course that may be happening in private. “It might be viewed as a sign of weakness,” he explains — even to the faculty member himself. “You are dealing with people who are highly educated: You can’t figure out your own problems? How can a therapist help you out?

“This is where the upper management of research schools should be concerned,” he adds. “Due to the stress, a lot of talented people drop out. It’s concerning, because the success of Pitt is in the people they attract.”

The second faculty member noted: “As a faculty member, you are very motivated, very driven, so more stress is self-induced. I had to put a lot of things on my plate.”

Some faculty responsibilities were his choice, he says; others were not. “If you are in a position to manage a big project, you always have to deal with lots of different personalities. And if it is something you are learning at the same time…”

Plus, he notes, faculty often need to work toward promotion: “Junior faculty have the additional challenge of not necessarily being able to say no if they are asked to do something. There is increasing responsibility for what faculty need to oversee and do.

“Being faculty is not a 9-5 job,” he adds. “It suits me. But it may be challenging because of that to find a work-life balance. It is easy to do more. If I go home I don’t close the door on my work.”

And he has been reluctant to talk about work issues with his spouse or friends. “You don’t want to overburden them. And you may have something confidential that you cannot share with people.

“I really needed to do something, take ownership and take control of what was going on in my life.”

Twice he has sought help from Pitt’s employee assistance program to cope with the stress concerning work-life balance, hoping to get unstuck from his previously unsuccessful attempts at coping on his own, and to discuss fresh strategies for managing the situation.

“That was extremely helpful to have a third-party that I can share confidential information with,” he said. “I can go into great detail about the situation … and rehearse with their communication strategies.”

He also recently completed stress coaching over the phone via the UPMC MyHealth@Work, the new walk-in clinic on the Pittsburgh campus. “That was very helpful too. It gives you a variety of stress management coping skills you have a chance to practice, reflect on and decide which works for you.”

He can see himself consulting the LifeSolutions psychologist if the pressures of faculty work again seem to overwhelm: “If this person has specific insight into faculty life and issues that faculty deal with — we are a different animal, or we like to think of ourselves as different — I would ask for her [aid] to seek out help next time.

“Depending on your cultural background, it may be difficult to admit you need help, to reach out to a psychologist,” he admits. “It was a difficulty for me several years ago. But once I learned about the resources that are available, I am a big advocate for it.”
—Marty Levine

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